When gory movies are torture to watch

by Steven Rea

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

14 June 2007

Lauren German as Beth gets grabbed from behind in this scene of movie, "Hostel: Part II." (Handout/MCT) 

In “Hostel: Part II,” which opened Friday and which probably has already made more money than the annual GNP of most African nations, actress Heather Matarazzo plays a gawky American coed, abducted by Eastern European sickos for the sole purpose of mutilation and murder.

In one of the hotly anticipated sequel’s signature scenes (hotly anticipated if your bookmark page has BloodyDisgusting.com or FearNet.com on it), the actress is bound, gagged and hung upside down, naked, in a terror chamber.

Then she’s poked and pried with a sickle. Flesh is slowly carved open. Finally, the blood disgorges in gallons.

“Once the blood started flowing it was unbelievable,” says Eli Roth, like a proud papa, about the staging of that scene.

The “Hostel” filmmaker reported that the guys from makeup—splatter specialists with 450 pics to their credit—told him that “they’ve never, ever been actually disturbed while shooting a scene. And that scene did it. And it’s not the blood, it’s really not. It’s the look on Heather’s face.”

A look of total horror.

It’s probably the same look that was on my face as I sat there recently with a preview audience of Hostel-heads. (Overheard before the lights went down: “Horror films are the purest form of cinema there is!”) Roth—with the enabling of the MPAA ratings board, which, after some give-and-take with the director, gave the movie an R rating—has pushed the envelope.

No, he’s punctured the envelope. And the contents—entrails, organs, severed heads—have gushed out, flooding the multiplexes. Also packed in that envelope: misogyny and rampant xenophobia. (Those murderous Slavs. Those twisted Gypsies. Those deadly, duplicitous Euro-babes.)

“Hostel: Part II” is well-made. Roth is a smart, talented guy. He’s building on the stuff of `70s exploitation, of seminal Sam Raimi, of horror classics like “Night of the Living Dead.” He even quotes from the Italian neo-realists.

But his new release, which he predicts will be remembered as “the most violent R-rated movie ever to hit theaters,” wasn’t any kind of fun for me. The scares weren’t cathartic. The gore wasn’t deliciously, devilishly over-the-top. It was toxic. You—well, I—felt contaminated watching it.

And it made me ponder: Has extreme horror gotten, well, too extreme? Will the prevalence and popularity of torture porn—a.k.a. gorno—warp our views on mayhem and murder, inure us, seep into our consciousness in creepy, vestigial ways? Is this stuff—the S & M gear, the leather and vinyl butcher couture, the power tools—being glamorized, fetishized? (Heck, yes!)

And is there some demented dude sitting a couple of aisles over who’s going to take the explicit carnage depicted in “Hostel: Part II”—rape, garroting, a circular saw to the face—and use it as an instructional tool?

Mike White, whose credits include writing “School of Rock” and directing “Year of the Dog,” published an op-ed piece in the New York Times shortly after Seung-Hui Cho’s massacre at Virginia Tech. The filmmaker, who began as a teenager crafting backyard slasher shorts with his friends, was questioning whether folks like “Hostel’s” Roth, like “Saw’s” James Wan, like the executives at Lionsgate, who have reaped hundreds of millions from the two franchises, are doing something unconscionable.

“The notion that `movies don’t kill people, lunatics kill people’ is liberating to us screenwriters because it permits us to give life to our most demented fantasies and put them up on the big screen without any anxious hand-wringing,” wrote White, responding to suggestions that Cho’s killings may have been inspired by watching the Korean vengeance pic “Old Boy.”

“We all know there’s a lot of money to be made trafficking in blood and guts. Young males—the golden demographic movie-makers ceaselessly pursue—eat that gore up. What a relief to be told that how we earn that money may be in poor taste, but it’s not irresponsible. The average American teenage boy knows the difference between right and wrong and no twisted, sadistic movie is going to influence him.”

But White goes on to challenge that rationale, suggesting that movies “permeate our fantasy lives and our real lives in subtle and profound ways.”

When posters for the forthcoming “Captivity”—in which Elisha Cuthbert stars as a young woman imprisoned, tormented and tortured—were slapped on bus shelters around L.A., there was a public uproar. One one-sheet, titled “TORTURE,” showed Cuthbert with tubes stuck up her nose, draining blood. Jill Soloway, a TV producer, blogged on the Huffington Post that the “Captivity” posters “managed to recall Abu Ghraib, the Holocaust, porn and snuff films all at once.”

The posters were removed, but not before Lionsgate, the leading purveyor of torture porn, had glommed invaluable free publicity.

Roth and others are quick to note that there’s no causal link between these films and real violence.

“Look, violent movies make violent filmmakers—that’s the worst that is going to happen,” says the director. “Plato said that `the good dream of what the bad do.’ I never got in a fight, I was always a great student, I worked as a babysitter, I was a camp counselor for years, I was always well-behaved, and I just love scary stories and love telling scary stories. It was always fun, it was always seen as entertainment.”

Roth says that the sociopathic nut jobs can get their rocks off with the real thing, not the “stylized” gore he’s orchestrated in “Hostel: Part II.” “The stuff that they can see on the Internet is real, so why would they even need to go to a movie like this? They can see real violence on television or on the Internet, no problem. Just look on YouTube.”

But movies like “Hostel: Part II,” “The Hills Have Eyes II,” the three “Saws” (a fourth is on its way), and even major-studio junk like “Vacancy” (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale become unwitting stars of a snuff pic), have a different kind of cumulative effect.

Yes, the moviegoing experience is all about escapism and emotional release. But when you’re escaping into a nightmare of violence and cruelty, when the value of a human life becomes the punch line for a sick joke, and body parts are fed to the dogs after the torturers are done with them—and all of it is rendered with state-of-the-art effects, canny music, and a cinematic intensity—well, what are we escaping into, then?

And what kind of emotions, exactly, are being released?

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